Most Valuable Player on the Sidelines

As the SI-ESPN rivalry heats up, Rick Reilly may score big

A million-dollar-a-year sportswriter? It's a concept worthy of induction in the oxymoron hall of fame. "A little like McLobster," jokes Sports Illustrated columnist Rick Reilly. Yet--hold on to your press pass--Reilly stands a good chance of becoming the first sports scribe ever to crash the seven-figure club. If he does, he can thank the intensifying struggle between sports-media warriors Sports Illustrated and ESPN.

Reilly may be America's most widely read sportswriter--and the most entertaining. His "Life of Reilly" column, which closes every issue of Sports Illustrated, alternatively makes for the funniest and most poignant reading in the sports weekly. It was Reilly who last summer blistered home-run king Barry Bonds with the simple line: "[He] isn't beloved by his teammates. He isn't even beliked."

Now, Walt Disney-owned ESPN is trying to shake the cleanup hitter out of SI's lineup. Early this year, ESPN execs approached Reilly and Gary Smith, another SI star, to discuss changing sides. Reilly, who earns about $750,000 at SI, according to industry sources, turned down ESPN when the media company launched its bimonthly magazine four years ago. Whatever his plans this time, he isn't doing much to discourage the bidding. "Am I interested? Yeah, I'm interested," he says. "I'm as wide-open as a 7-Eleven." An ESPN exec declined to comment on talks with Reilly.

For now, SI has a comfortable circulation lead over ESPN the Magazine--3.15 million to 1.5 million. But the upstart is getting more popular with a prized audience: young fans. The average age of an ESPN reader is 31, compared with 37 for SI. That hardly makes SI dinosaur food. But its aging demographic is stirring change.

In January, Time Inc. Editorial Director John Huey forced out SI Managing Editor Bill Colson, a 24-year veteran of the mag, and the next month replaced him with hotshot editor Terry McDonell of Us Weekly. Neither Huey nor McDonell would speak about the changes with BusinessWeek. A spokesman for Time Inc. said the editors wanted to wait several months for McDonell to settle into his job before commenting.

There's little doubt, however, that a priority for McDonell will be reaching out to younger fans. "We're talking about a group with extreme amounts of spending money. So advertisers want them, and magazines are becoming their playground," says Samir A. Husni, a magazine consultant and journalism professor at the University of Mississippi.

Connecting with the snowboard set without alienating SI's loyal readers will be one of McDonell's toughest assignments. Quips celebrated SI contributor Frank Deford: "The only people who should want to appeal to young males are young females." Still, in a youthful stretch this spring, three of four Sports Illustrated covers featured teenagers. And, says Husni, "SI is no longer whispering at the audience. It's screaming--just what ESPN the Magazine did from Day One."

Even so, SI can appear stodgy compared with ESPN's hip sports empire, which includes 24-hour cable networks, a Web site, radio network, and theme restaurants. The magazine may have the highest energy of all those properties, with multipage photo spreads and staccato-paced stories on subjects that, until recently, were relegated to second string at SI. "Some of the content is very good. Some of it is over my head. But I'm 44," concedes Rick Jaffe, managing editor of Fox Sports News.

The battle over Reilly, whose contract with Sports Illustrated ends in November, could be the most interesting story of all. Predictably, the half-embarrassed writer is treating it as a big joke. He just has one question of his two suitors: "Can they do this and stay under the salary cap?"

By Mark Hyman

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